Fear is new to me. At least it feels new to me. We all feel fear at different times in our life. Looking back, it seems as if I didn’t experience much of it. I guess that shouldn't be a complaint. Finding out I’m afraid of heights while taking a rock climbing class felt completely foreign to me. It actually made me mad. I didn’t want to be afraid. I just wanted to be good at this new thing I was trying out. But fear doesn’t really cater to our desires. And thats a good thing.
With rock climbing, my fears lessened with mileage. The more I did it, the more I trusted the gear, and the fear lessened. Once I’d taken a few falls, and was completely safe, the fear lessened even more. However, I still deal with a very real fear of exposure. Walking on a mountain trail with a sheer drop off makes me freeze up and not want to move. It seems completely normal to fear this. A fall would be fatal. But how often are you just walking and you fall over? Rarely. Never. You can walk in a straight line without falling. So why do I become paralyzed with fear, with a flat trail laid out ahead of me, that happens to be exposed? Probably because I love and value my life.
Last year when we climbed Grays Peak and attempted Torreys, the route off of Torrey’s and back to Grays was a mildly exposed saddle. It was covered in snow, and by the afternoon it was becoming slushy. A fall would not have been fatal, and by this point I knew how to self arrest (with or without an ax) if I needed to. I had micro-spikes that kept me from slipping, and poles that completely aided in balance. I was behind Andy and in front of our friend Jamie when we started across it. I became overcome with fear. Completely washed over with tears welling up in my eyes. Every step was a struggle and I pictured myself losing my footing and sliding down to the base of the mountain. Maybe I’d break a leg. Or an arm. A line was building up behind Jamie of increasingly annoyed hikers (Really though, they could suck it for all I cared. Have some freaking patience!) Jamie was being reassuring and saying “If you fall, I’ll grab you”, which is never a good idea. We don’t need 2 people careening down the mountain. I didn’t have a choice. I had to go across. I had to put one foot in front of the other. And I did. It felt like an eternity but I made it. And then I was mad. I get so mad when I’m scared.
I still have fear when I climb, but its more of a driving force than a paralyzing emotion. I find it fun. Its the butterflies in my stomach and the desire to get better. I have been working on my fear of exposure as well. On any mountain we climb, I try to climb to the highest point. Even if I can’t muster the courage to stand up, I crawl my way up to it. My understanding is that the only way to overcome a fear is to face it. To do it. To embrace it. Its sort of hard to reason that I shouldn’t be afraid of something that could kill me. I should be. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do it, and do it carefully. I want to take the fear that causes every muscle in my body to tense up and tears to well up in my eyes and turn it into the butterflies in my stomach that make me smile. Pipe dreams? I don’t know. I’m still working on it. I’ll be crossing that same saddle between Grays and Torreys again sometime this month. There will probably be slushy snow on it. I will probably be afraid. This time my goal is no tears.
If Alli Rainey can climb 5.14 (think no hand-holds, tiny tiny footholds, and sheer vertical cliff faces) with a fear of heights, then I can surely walk across an exposed trail?
(If you watch the video, feel free to oogle her killer arms. They are 100% oogleable, as is the grace with which she moves up the rock. So beautiful!)